PITTSBURGH – In the mid-2000’s Keith Urban changed the path of country music forever.¹
With his 2004 release “Be Here” and subsequent follow-up “Love, Pain & The Whole Crazy Thing” two years later, Urban ushered in a more streamlined, ‘rock’ approach that didn’t fall under the category of outlaw country (not anywhere close, mind you), but was markedly different than anything receiving airplay on mainstream country radio.
Simply put, Urban’s sound was basically a countrified version of 90’s bands like Hootie and The Blowfish, Matchbox 20, Train and Goo Goo Dolls with his own ‘banjo guitar’ serving as the lead instrument on the majority of up-tempo songs, giving them a ‘familiar country sound’ as opposed to what they were – mainstream pop/rock songs disguised as country.
While Urban is still going strong today (thanks in part to his solid songwriting and appearance as a judge on American Idol), his songs sound more or less the same as they did 10 years ago.
Maybe it had something to do with his Australian/New Zealand background, his refusal to wear cowboy hats or plaid shirts (in addition to his long hair/stubble). But because he was an outsider treading in familiar ground in Nashville, he was able to skirt the traditional sound/rules and carve out something on his own.
Soon thereafter, many followed suit, but not in the way you would think.
While some jumped at the opportunity to copy Urban’s sound (hello Rascal Flatts), most took Urban’s ‘rock’ cues and started to take the sound of country to places previously untouched in country. And while it was new to country, that didn’t mean it was a new sound to anyone else. In fact, it was a largely familiar sound – the sound of 80’s hair metal and rock, done with Telecasters instead of Gibson’s.
Eventually Bro’ country was born from this, led by the likes of Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean and Jake Owen.²
While this is still the most prevalent sound in country (carried on by Cole Swindell, Chase Rice and Brantley Gilbert), it has has morphed even further into a mix of 80’s synth pop as country music continues to ape the sound of mainstream radio, with a banjo lick thrown in here or there for good measure (some, like Kip Moore have even gone as far as to ape the sounds of Pat Benatar, Don Henley and Tom Petty).
There is one artist, though, who has separated himself from the bro’ country fraternity and brought a completely new sound to the top of the country music charts by focusing on a combination of pop and R&B. We are talking, of course, about Sam Hunt.
After writing hits for Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban, Hunt released his debut album Montevallo on October 27, 2014, via MCA Nashville. Hunt co-wrote all ten tracks on the album with his unique songwriting style and vocal delivery, influenced more by the likes of Usher, than say Garth Brooks.
As we touched on with Luke Bryan, drum machines, synths and auto-tune vocals are what we’ve come to expect from a mainstream country album in 2015. Hunt delivers plenty of this on Montevallo, evidenced by the hit “Break Up In A Small Town”.
When placed next the uber-traditional “Troubadour” by George Strait (a beautiful song in its own right), Hunt’s songs don’t sound the least bit country, save for the subject matter he covers in his songs. But that’s where we are in 2015.
So when Sam Hunt released his mixtape “Between The Pines” this week, some may see it as a way for Hunt to say, “Hey look, I write country songs that all start on the acoustic guitar,” and proclaim that his roots are firmly entrenched in country.
That’s pretty much the exact opposite of what Hunt was trying to accomplish.
All the pomp and circumstance about mainstream country music – how every single note of music, choice of clothing, style of hair is calculated to the furthest degree – is quite irksome.
There is absolutely nothing about mainstream country music – from the records Nashville churns out to the way country music superstars look (and the songs they sing) that is spontaneous. Make no mistake, Hunt is 100% guilty of all of this.
One may even say that its very shrewd of him (and his handlers/marketers) to release a mixtape under the guise of spontaneity – as if these 15 songs Hunt originally cowrote and recorded for his SoundCloud profile over a year ago was released in a “Hey, we think this is pretty cool, here you go, check it out” kind of way.
Even if Hunt is making it look spontaneous (even though it may not be), at least he’s breaking new ground by becoming the first mainstream country artist to release what the rap genre has been doing for years (and has perfected)…
Much like Urban in the mid-’00’s, this could allow other mainstream country artists to deliver their music in way that doesn’t include the heavy-handed, micromanaging record label closely watching their every step.³
Sam Hunt has already established himself as a country music gamechanger with his deft use of pop and R&B – Between The Pines just furthers and cements that gamechanging status.
¹ Take special notice that we didn’t say he changed the sound of country music, but the path. There is a clear distinction between the two
² Oddly enough, all these artists (with the exception of FGL) started with a very traditional sound then changed to bro’ country around 2010, 2011
³ It’s surprising Eric Church hasn’t done this, but then again, if you think about it, it’s not that surprising since Church’s whole persona is built around the outlaw who doesn’t give a fuck (perhaps he’s too busy picking out his next leather jacket and pair of Ray Bans to realize he could have done this instead of releasing a cliched live album in between studio albums. Clearly everyone has caught onto Church’s act by now. He’s Nickelback disguised as country.